In a recent speech delivered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, United States President Barack Obama referred to Indians and Chinese students as a source of stiff competition for American children. He said the U.S. used to be ahead of other countries in producing graduates and doctorates, but it had now fallen behind. The Indians and the Chinese “are now coming at us, and they are coming hard at us,” he said. One might guess that he was hinting at the visible presence of Asian students in American universities. Alternatively, he might have used India and China as popular symbols of economic competitiveness and growth.

This is not the first time Mr. Obama has used the two countries as symbols of a new world order in which America cannot take its hegemony for granted. A speech he delivered soon after his victory at a meeting of Hispanic community leaders made a similar point. In both speeches, he set up the example of Indian and Chinese children for their capacity for hard work, in apparent contrast to American children who supposedly spend more hours watching television and playing video games than they spend studying or doing homework.

Mr. Obama spoke about the amount of time American children spend on video games and television, suggesting that the system of education is not demanding enough to make children study hard at home. In his speech to the Hispanic community too, Mr. Obama had invoked the idea of decline in standards. He used the familiar discourse of testing as a means to assess the performance of teachers. The ideological roots of this approach lie in the neo-liberal insistence on applying management models to education, but Mr. Obama used it to communicate his ideas to a community which feels that its children are not being given the same serious attention that the upper middle class white children receive. Apart from the Hispanic community, Afro-Americans in general might also have felt that he was talking about their children. They have a long memory of being stereotyped as people whose children need not aspire for academic education. Prejudice towards non-whites has been a major theme in American research on education.

To make sense of Mr. Obama’s educational discourse, we need to take into account the historical character of America’s national concerns in children‘s education. One can hardly think of another country which has remained, on the one hand, convinced of the crucial role of education in economic development and has, on the other, remained obsessed with the fear of loss of standards in education. Indeed, ‘educational doom’ has been a uniquely popular genre in American scholarship. A turning point in America’s post-war policies in education came when the former Soviet Union placed the Sputnik in space. America’s deep sense of physical insecurity shaped its response to the Soviet achievement. It was interpreted as evidence of something being seriously wrong with American education. A vast range of radical reforms in curriculum and teacher training followed, apart from enhancement of public financial investment in education. But the anxiety never died and scholarly books claiming America’s decline as a world leader in education kept coming at a steady pace.

The fact of the matter is that despite the constant alarm raised about standards, America has never really lost its top rank as a destination for foreign students and scholars. Nor has its output of scholarly books and journals shown any signs of shrinking. Like education in America, the knowledge produced there has consistently become more and more expensive to buy and the arrival of the Internet has made little difference. Over the recent years, extremist neo-liberal voices have gained a radical advantage over moderate voices. In her recent book entitled Academic Capitalism, Professor Sheila Slaughter discusses the ascendance of a corporate regime in higher education which has focussed on using universities and knowledge as instruments of power and control, both within America and across the globe. Personal cost of education has risen with the decline of state support for universities. Racial, class, gender and regional inequalities have deepened.

The neo-liberal regime has also sharpened the contradictions and contrasts within the system of education, leading to a sense of crisis in certain areas. One such area is teaching as a profession. Conditions in urban schools, as opposed to suburban schools which cater to the wealthier sections of society, are marked by chronic restive behaviour and violence. Teachers trained under four or five-year-long university programmes find their professional life in urban schools unbearably frustrating. The shortage created by teachers’ decision to quit and move into more lucrative and less demanding jobs has encouraged private agencies to come up with fast-track training programmes which focus on subject teaching and ignore psychological and sociological awareness. During the Bush years, slogans like ‘anyone can teach’ and ‘good enough teaching’ became popular. Yet another development which undermined the professional status and autonomy of teaching was the peddling of e-learning and other commoditised or packaged learning alternatives.

This scenario is not altogether unfamiliar to us. Our investment in education has been modest, and the number of institutions that have maintained rigour and quality are few. If the U.S. President is concerned about a competitive India, he is either being futuristic or else he is referring to that small fraction of the relevant age cohort of Indian youth which belongs to the upwardly mobile strata of Indian society and is getting globalised in larger numbers than the U.S. has been used to. We can hardly afford to interpret Mr. Obama’s positive remarks as an excuse to ignore our reality.

The recently submitted report of the Yash Pal Committee on higher education reminds us how huge the heap of our compounded problems now is and how determined an effort is required to cleanse the system. The report reminds us that there are no easy solutions and that there is no alternative to institutional rebuilding. Remedies like treating higher education as a market or opening it up for foreign universities look tempting but they are unlikely to provide even temporary relief. A dissenting member of the Yash Pal committee argued that opening up higher education for profit-seekers will improve quality by encouraging competitiveness. Such an argument ignores the nature of education in two specific facets — one, that any investment in education which leads to social mobility and increased equality has an extremely long gestation period before returns become visible, and two, that mono-subject higher education, such as stand-alone technical or management education is pedagogically flawed because it does not allow to creatively mix disciplinary perspectives in their minds. This is why the best universities in the world provide technical or management education alongside almost every conceivable subject area.

It is usually only governments that can afford to wait for decades before social returns become visible, and provide education across multiple disciplines, even if many of them are not profit-making in a fee-payment sense. Private entities prefer to have tangible investment horizons, and they typically provide education in areas where students are willing to pay high fees, or the job market provides optimal incentives. This is why pedagogically and socially-productive investments in education must come from the state.

The Yash Pal report focusses on the intellectual fragmentation of academic life and its consequences. The report compels us to ponder why our undergraduate education fails to inspire the young and how our system reinforces gender disparity. The challenge of reform it sets up invites us to think beyond ideological stereotypes of change. The report tells us that the challenge is not merely administrative and financial, but also curricular and pedagogic. And it is structural too, in the sense that it demands a systemic vision. Fragmentation of knowledge is at the heart of the problem posed by rigidities of admission to colleges, the isolation of engineering and medicine from science and social science, and the separation of research from teaching at the undergraduate level. Problems of this kind cannot be solved in a day. Instead of being taken in by Mr. Obama’s reference to India as a rival in education, let us appreciate the scale of the challenge we face and the distractions we must avoid, especially the distraction of a populist discourse which trivialises the challenges of educational planning or restricts it to the task of reproducing a small, globally mobile Indian elite.

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